John Donne: The Reformed Soul
By John Stubbs
|Encountering a new biography of John Donne should be an unabashedly pleasant experience. The subject is as complex a figure as can be found in all of English literature, the raw narrative of his life is inherently fascinating, and the issues grappled with in his prose and verse are evergreen in their power to involve. The anticipation a reader should feel upon first looking into John Stubbs’ large (600 pages) new biography of Donne, for instance, should be sweet indeed.In fact, it’s that initial act of picking up the book that threatens to dash the whole ship against the rocks.
You pick it up, you look at the front cover (naturally, it’s the anonymous Donne portrait, all sideways glances and pouty lips). Then you flip it over and read the blurbs and summaries on the back (in this case, you’ll see that Hilary Spurling, Robert Nye, and the redoubtable Jonathan Bate himself have praised the book, and also that it won the Royal Society of Literature’s Jerwood Award for a work-in-progress). And finally, you look at the inside flaps on the dust jacket, to get a little more summary and to take a look at the author’s photo and read his bonafides.
It’s at this point that the problem with John Donne: The Reformed Soul arises. Because that’s not the author’s son or grandson looking back out at you, that’s the author himself. And the note below informs you that he took his degree in 2005.
John Stubbs was born in 1977. Which makes him, by a quick calculation, roughly twelve. Your present reviewer owns no article of clothing that isn’t older than our biographer. The battered manual typewriter on which the analog-version of these words is being hammered out (with tyrannical young co-editors impatiently toe-tapping in the background) is a whopping 130 years older than Stubbs.
First instinct is to say: surely that doesn’t matter! The author’s age should have as little impact on how his work is judged as would his hair color, or the astrological sign under which he was born. The proof, surely, is in the pudding.
But is it really? Is it always? If a small child, cherubic face all streaked with ingredients, ran up to you and shoved that pudding under your nose, proudly saying “Me make pudding! You eatee?” – well, surely you’d be justified in declining? Surely even the most Gaia-esque Earth Mother type would decide that in this case, the proof need not be in the pudding?
John Donne is the most brain-cracking of all the so-called Metaphysical Poets. His verse – the best of it – is steeply recondite, to an extent equaled by none of his contemporaries (it’s sheer twisty beauty is surpassed only by Shakespeare, and not always even then). His sermons in their searching, frequently gorgeous prose carry the eschatological tradition of Augustine and Aquinas into new lands of self-doubt and fragile hope.
In the nearly four hundred years since his death, Donne has attracted the earnest contemplation of a veritable who’s who of literary figures, from Jonson to Dryden to Johnson to Swinburne to T.S. Eliot. Learned dons and docents have spent their entire scholarly careers studying his works, prying symbol from structure, grappling with the brain that could create it all.
So there looms one question larger than all the others over John Donne: The Reformed Soul: What can John Stubbs, barely age 30 and writing largely in his late twenties, possibly have to say about John Donne?
If only the publisher hadn’t included that photo! If only the author-bio had omitted any dates! All through the actual act of reading the book, the fingers keep creeping back, back, to take another look at the mewling child on the back jacket-flap. The reflex is so instinctual it feels positively illicit. John Stubbs was just mastering the rudiments of speech in 1980. He was attending his Senior Prom (you just know he’d have had a date; he looks like Orlando Bloom, only with a brain) in 1994. His earliest exposure to the actual writings of John Donne can have happened not much earlier than that. Even if, from that moment on, he did nothing but eat, sleep, and breathe Donne every day (to put it mildly, not a likely proposition), that still gives him only a handful of years of familiarity with his subject.
And his subject requires more than a handful of years. Donne was everything in his life: an Elizabethan buccaneer, a successful courtier, an unsuccessful courtier, a welcomed prospective son-in-law, a despised (and briefly imprisoned) no-longer-prospective son-in-law, a fervent Catholic, a fervent Protestant, a devoted husband and an articulate misogynist, a thoroughly jaded man of the court and, it may permissibly be imagined, a man deepened by grief and time into a genuine searcher after faith. Even in an age of violent contrasts, few Elizabethans (fat, fat and lazy to call Donne anything else … for Donne, anyway, ‘Jacobean’ is a distinction without a definition) experienced such personal and professional extremes.
He began simply enough, much in the manner of the nearly three generations of young men who’d made their way to the court of Elizabeth: he had money, brains, winning manners, connections, enormous literary ability, and the ambition that comes from having all those things. He wanted a place at court and was continuously denied it – his abduction of his young wife (and subsequent dismissal and blackballing by her father, who, as Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal of England, was particularly effective at blackballing) didn’t help his cause, and even years later, King James was deaf to the entreaties of Donne’s friends and patrons, urging him only to take up the churchman’s life.
Eventually cold poverty forced him to accept such a position (entry level only; the King had already promised his friends that if Donne chose the ecclesiastical path, his rise would be swift and high) and go from there. He had a wife and a growing family to support, and a position was essential. When he was made a Doctor of Divinity in 1615 at Cambridge, the divines there objected on the grounds that Donne was a mere careerist, ‘unconvinced in faith’ (that clattering you might be hearing is a whole faculty of pots calling the kettle black), but the King’s fiat carried the day and paved the way for Donne to become dean of St. Paul’s, from the pulpit of which he delivered some of the most impassioned, personal, and well-nigh impenetrably intelligent ruminations on God, death, and the afterlife ever composed.
And the whole time, he brought to all the twists and turns of his life an intellect and fierce, though conflicted, morality that were unmatched in his day and have seldom been matched in all the ages since.
In light of which-all it behooves repetition: what can such a young man possibly have to say about John Donne? What can John Stubbs, who got his degree in 2005 while he was writing this book, possibly have to say aboutthe vast and deep subject that is John Donne?
Not, as it turns out, much.
With all due respect to Spurling, Nye, Bate et al, it’s difficult to understand where their enthusiasms come from. Whatever strengths this book may have, the ability to spark enthusiasm certainly isn’t one of them.
This isn’t from want of Stubbs trying; he never met a colorful period detail he didn’t like. Gypsies, dancing bears, sea-dogs and mountebanks lose no time in making their appearance, and when they appear the reader’s hopes that this might be a sober, scholarly work begin to vanish. Not much in the ensuing hundreds of pages will invite those hopes back. This is mostly the cuss-and-codpiece kind of historical biography that yearns not to be the best but to be a bestseller.
Certainly Donne’s life affords all the raw material for a bestseller – but it would perforce be a work of fiction. Because of the very complexity that burns underneath Donne’s confessional mode in verse and prose, those confessions can virtually never be taken at face value. Yet Stubbs does this again and again, mapping the sermons and especially the poems onto the events of Donne’s life as snug as a glove. The man who would take this approach with any author is running a great risk; the man who would do it with the Metaphysical Poets – to say nothing of their ‘monarch of wit’ – is virtually guaranteeing misreading.
Take for example the poem ‘The Perfume,’ which recounts the clandestine visit an impetuous young lover makes to his mistress’ house one night. The figure in the poem creeps along the house’s corridors, making every effort to be quiet, but his presence is revealed to the girl’s father by the strong perfume the young lover is wearing. Stubbs writes:
“These are events from a poem he wrote as a young man. It was classed as an ‘elegy’, and became known as ‘The Perfume.’ It might be the lusty account of an actual adventure; it might all be made up.”
The biographer of any literary figure (especially one so multi-faceted as Donne) owes it to his readers always to assume the latter. But this would have left Stubbs with a book that was much shorter and, one suspects, much less fun to write. So, only twenty pages later, while ruminating about an early portrait of Donne, Stubbs has already convinced himself:
“The youngster in this picture was making his first excursions into the theatres and taverns on the Bankside, sneaking to his girlfriend’s chamber in the dead of night, and trying not to creak the fixtures too loudly.”
Needless to say, there is no evidence that the young John Donne did any such things; that they’re recounted as facts so soon after the author himself pointed out the possibility that they could be complete fabrications tells the reader quite a bit about what kind of book Stubbs wants this to be.
(That ‘dead of night’ is far from being alone, incidentally; the book is liberally stocked with cliches. Some of them, like the mention of a ‘girlfriend,’ are just anachronistic. Others – ‘rule with an iron fist,’ ‘perish the thought,’ ‘lily-livered,’ etc – betray a lazy pen, or else an overconfident one).
Stubbs never varies from identifying Donne’s moods and mindframes, and the resultant portrait is as intimate as it is fraudulent. When talking about the emotional turmoil Donne’s wife felt after losing three of their children in one year (in itself a supposition, though an allowable one), Stubbs writes “Donne still clung to his wife. However much he was away from her, there was no question in his mind of their marriage ever being shaken.” When
talking about Donne’s decision to become a churchman, Stubbs writes “But his friends were generally supportive.” When talking about King James reading a tract Donne had written, Stubbs writes of him “leafing through the tract after a day’s hunting.” When talking about a summer in Donne’s youth, Stubbs writes, “Donne himself, that summer, was at large in London, footloose but listless.”
The book is rife with this kind of nonsense, and as comforting (or worse, humanizing) as such details may be to the general reader who wanders in from less exacting genres, they can’t help but annoy those who open this book wanting an accurate picture distilled from scholarly rigor. Surely such details would have annoyed Donne himself, who only published a handful of poems in his life and mentions often in his letters the high value he places on
Occasionally, this tendency to ‘add color’ to the proceedings is taken to such extremes that it becomes funny in ways its author probably didn’t intend. Take for instance the point where Stubbs is describing Sir George More’s reaction when Harry Percy, the earl of Northumberland, brings him the news that Donne has secretly married More’s young daughter:
“A fly on the ceiling of More’s study would have been able to offer no report of the interview with Northumberland: it would have been blinded by spittle. Sir George went wild at the disclosure.”
If the reader overlooks the fact that this bizarre little scene is founded on yet another cliche (to be a fly on the wall), the thought of More’s spittle having the range and accuracy to blind a fly on the ceiling is pretty damn amusing. Surely the poor blinded fly could still have reported on what it heard?
It’s possible – far-fetched, but possible – that all of these defects might have been, if not absolved, at least counter-balanced if Stubbs were to write brilliantly about Donne’s writings. History has shown – most notably in biographies of Rimbaud and Lord Byron – that such dichotomies are possible; at the onset, there is grounds for hope.
Alas, doomed. That the rippling subtleties and wrenching self-examination of Donne’s poetry elude our young author is not surprising – they’ve eluded far older men, some able poets among them. And we will never know if Donne’s various prose compositions equally baffled Stubbs, because he doesn’t engage with them in any way other than as a trove of explicitly biographical minutiae. Ironically, this often prevents any hint of the living man from being audible.
The book is not without its charms, despite the tangled undergrowth the reader must hack through to find them. Stubbs is far more intelligent than the populist tack he’s taken here, and this intelligence is evident in the sheer amount of information he’s sorted through and explained clearly. If the reader is wary enough to keep constantly in mind Stubbs’ fanciful
inventions, they will come away from this big book knowing everything factual there is to know about Donne’s life and times. No such caution is necessary when reading R.C. Bald’s magisterial (and slyly witty) 1970 life of Donne, but in its long-gone absence, our young author’s book is at least adequate.
And as a debut, it’s wonderfully auspicious. Ben Jonson once remarked – with his characteristic mix of brutal honesty and unerring accuracy – that all of Donne’s best things were written before he was twenty-five years old. Even if we agree with this, we must admit it can be said of very few writers. Stubbs has demonstrated that he can research, and he’s shown a very welcome desire to reach a broad audience. If he can manage in subsequent books to do both while doing violence to neither, he may yet produce masterpieces. When he’s just a little older.
Steve Donoghue’s writing has appeared in numerous journals and broadsheets including Punch, The Tatler, The Boston Gazette, Encyclopédie, The London Quarterly Review, McClure’s, L’Aurore, and The American Mercury. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads, at stevereads.blogspot.com